Abdel Hakim Belhaj, center, a rebel military commander during the Libyan… (Francois Mori / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — A Libyan man says he was waterboarded while in CIA custody in Afghanistan, a new allegation that challenges the long-standing claim by U.S. officials that just three people since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had been subjected to the simulated drowning technique many consider torture.
The account by Mohammed Shoroeiya, who says he was detained in Pakistan in April 2003 and kept in American custody in Afghanistan through 2004, is part of a series of new claims included in a report by Human Rights Watch published Thursday. The report comes two days after the Justice Department closed two unrelated investigations of the deaths of detainees in CIA custody with no charges.
The 156-page report provides new details about how the CIA captured Libyan extremists in Pakistan and elsewhere, held and questioned them at a secret CIA site in Afghanistan, and sent them back to Libya in cooperation with then-leader Moammar Kadafi, who at the time was mending relations with the United States and its allies. In addition to interviews, the report cites logs of CIA "extraordinary rendition" flights and documents obtained in Libya.
Five Libyans describe being chained naked, sometimes while diapered, in dark, windowless cells, for weeks or months at a time; being restrained in painful stress positions and forced into cramped spaces; being beaten and slammed into walls; and being constantly exposed to loud music in an effort to deprive them of sleep.
Without using the term "waterboarding," Shoroeiya said he was strapped to a board with his head lower than his feet, and buckets of cold water were poured over his nose and mouth for as long as a minute, making him feel he was going to suffocate.
The report recounts interviews with 14 Libyans, most of them former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an extremist group whose members were found to have played a key role in the Iraq insurgency. They describe experiences that are consistent with official accounts of how the CIA treated detainees during the Bush administration's detention, interrogation and rendition program.
The previously unexplored accounts "reflect just how little the public still knows about what went on in the U.S. secret detention program," wrote Laura Pitter, author of the report titled "Delivered Into Enemy Hands: U.S.-led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi's Libya." (Gaddafi is an alternative spelling of Kadafi.)
Waterboarding was the most controversial of the techniques the CIA used on suspected Al Qaeda detainees. Japanese prison guards were convicted of torture after using the technique on Americans in World War II. The CIA has said that only three detainees were waterboarded: Al Qaeda operatives Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.
CIA spokesman John Tomczyk said Thursday, "The agency has been on the record that there are three substantiated cases in which detainees were subjected to the waterboarding technique under the program. Although we cannot comment on these specific allegations, the Department of Justice has exhaustively reviewed the treatment of more than 100 detainees in the post-9/11 period — including allegations involving unauthorized interrogation techniques — and it declined prosecution in every case."
Tomczyk declined to comment when asked whether CIA operatives could have waterboarded outside the auspices of "the program."
The CIA "seems to be leaving open the possibility that there may have been unsubstantiated additional cases of waterboarding outside of the agency's formal high-value detainee interrogation and detention program," wrote Benjamin Wittes, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, on his Lawfare blog. "That would be, at least to me, shocking and upsetting if it turned out to be true."
President Obama ended the CIA's interrogation program, but he has rejected calls for a public truth commission to explore what took place. A classified investigative report by Senate Democrats is finished, but it is unclear how much of it will be made public.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced that investigations of two cases involving detainees who died after CIA interrogations would be closed with no charges. Special counsel John Durham, who conducted his inquiry in strict secrecy, did not explain the decision or his previous move not to file charges after reviewing 100 other cases.
The Justice Department did not examine whether the instructions and legal approvals given to the CIA were themselves illegal.
It's unclear whether the Senate investigation or the Justice Department inquiry examined the allegations of the Libyans. Many of them were released from prison last year, after the U.S. and its allies helped overthrow Kadafi, who was subsequently killed. Some are now playing leading roles in the new Libyan government, including Khalid Sharif, now head of the Libyan National Guard.